Washington Sketch: The Obama Backbone Edition

Dana Milbank
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, October 2, 2009; 12:00 PM

Post columnist Dana Milbank serves as the capital's foremost critic of political theater.

He was online Friday, Oct. 2 at noon ET to take your questions and comments about the things politicians say -- and the absurd ways they find to say them.

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Dana Milbank:

Hellooooo, Sketchreaders.

Well, we didn't get the gold. Or even the silver. Since you're online now, you already know the bad news, which has without doubt also reached Air Force One over the Atlantic on its way back from a failed mission in Copenhagen: no Olympics for Chicago.

This will play as a big loss for Obama, and it has made him look like a bit of a sucker. But if there's good news in it, it's that he has shown that he can act with force and decisiveness when he wishes to. And if he can do that with other items on his agenda once he lands at Andrews, he'll be able to pull off some victories far more important than the Chicago Olympics.

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Baltimore: Dana, I admire the way you can toggle back and forth between Mencken-like scorn for the political species and serious topics like today's piece contrasting Helen Thomas with the administration.

I am a liberal Democrat and the president's demeanor is reminding me of another Illinois politician. No, not Lincoln, Adlai Stevenson, who twice lost to Eisenhower. Stevenson was a brilliant, thoughtful, highly articulate man who always seemed to me to be vaguely puzzled by the fact that others in politics weren't brilliant and thoughtful. That's the exact same vibe the president is giving off right now and it has me deeply worried.

Of course, there hasn't been a Democratic president who could really just punch his opponents in the gut and get what he wanted since LBJ. And that's how the country got Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Maybe there's a lesson there.

Dana Milbank:

Thanks, Baltimore. My fear has been that Obama would turn out Carter-like: thoughtful, good policies, but too cerebral to see them through. The Stevenson model may be more on point, though, because Obama thankfully doesn't have the Carter sanctimony.

Our political system is badly broken -- and, unfortunately, to get anything done, you have to behave in nasty and brutish fashion.

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Obama can't win...: So folks now don't like Obama's "let's think about things and get consensus before we move" style, but they didn't like George Bush's charging around like a bull in a china shop either.

Obama can't win here: if he's immediately decisive on something big, like health care or the environment, he leaves his opponents ample ammunition to say they weren't consulted, he's railroading them, etc.

If he deliberates and takes his time, he's accused of being wimpy and unable to make up his mind.

Then when he does support something that he clearly should and would anyway (see: Chicago's bid for the Olympics), he gets criticized for doing it. I think there's a legitimate beef with him not taking a firm position on the public option in healthcare, but the rest of it is just so much spin. My question, how SHOULD he act? Not like he's acting now, but not like Bush either? What would that magical middle ground look like?

Dana Milbank:

It's a good point. I think that whatever you think of Bush's policies, and most of them in retrospect look to have been flops, he certainly had a way of ramming things through Congress. So perhaps the happy medium would be a guy who comes up with good, sensible and centrist policies -- and then rams them through Congress.

I don't often find myself adhering to the philosophy of Michael Moore, but he was dead on this week when he said that Obama erred in not asking for more in the healthcare debate. Moore was very much advocating the Bush model: don't negotiate with yourself. Had Obama demanded a single-payer system, the Republicans right now might well be crowing about how they forced him to compromise by accepting "only" a public insurance option.

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We lose!: ....And it also means that Obama will lose Illinois when he runs for re-election. And this could mean war with Denmark.

Oh, pu-leeze. Make the effort was all he had to do, and he did it. If you think this has any significance except with the bottom crust 25% who "aren't sure" whether he's bin Laden's son, and who fear "youth in Asia" killing grandma, then you're delusional.

Dana Milbank:

Actually I think it's Roland Burris's fault. Will somebody please chisel this on his mausoleum?

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Helen Thomas is a National Treasure: That is all.

washingtonpost.com: A White House That Acts With All Deliberate Deliberation

Dana Milbank:

I did what I shouldn't do and peeked at the comments section after the column today, and there was lots of nasty stuff about Helen. I can't say I've always agreed with her (her book on the White House press corps a few years back seemed off to me) but she certainly should be a Smithsonian exhibit.

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Washington, D.C.: Astounded how Gibbs can get away with saying Obama can go to Copenhagen because health care's "in a better place"? Like the Senate Finance committee? Is Olympia Snowe president or Madame from Waylon and Madame?

Dana Milbank:

A crazier line was uttered on Wednesday when Gibbs told us that the House vote on climate-change was good enough without the Senate, because the House "speaks for the United States" or some such. Think he had Joe Wilson or Alan Grayson in mind?

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"This will play as a big loss for Obama, and it has made him look like a bit of a sucker.": Maybe internationally (so what?). More importantly, it shows him to be a President willing to go the extra mile to bring multiple millions of dollars to a state of the union. You take your economic stimulus from wherever you can.

Dana Milbank: Cash for Clunkers!

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Tuckahoe, NY: I can think of one recent politician who was totally ruthless, brutish and without scruples in getting his way: Tom Delay. Now he has donned a tu-tu and is mincing across our screens. Dana, what the heck is going on there in Washington?

Dana Milbank:

Possibly this has all been caused by swine flu.

I confess I did catch the Hammer's dance routine this week -- he isn't bad. And did you notice that they eliminated us from the Olympics the same way they tell people to go home on Dancing With the Stars.

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Baltimore: Oh, come ON, man. We HAD a president who was decisive, forceful, deliberate, and had backbone. And you hated every damned thing Bush 43 did. Oh, before that? How about Reagan?

Sorry, you have to be honest with yourself as well as us: You want a president who forcefully decides things the way YOU want them to be and then crams those decisions down the throats of those who disagree with you and him.

Dana Milbank:

Yes, a sort of a benign monarch. I would support Oprah for this position.

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Letterman and Ensign: It's too bad Sen. Ensign didn't have a nationally broadcast comedy talk show to fess up to his staff affair like Letterman. It would have saved him all the trouble setting his mistress' (what IS the proper possessive of mistress?) husband up a lobbying job funded by his campaign donors and then coaching him how to illegally lobby his own office. In a similar spot, you would have put on your smoking jacket and fired up the Web cam, "Sketchers, I have a story for you today..."

Dana Milbank:

Mistress's. Or, perhaps, mistresses'.

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Chicago: I'm sure its only a matter of minutes until the Olympics loss blame-shifting begins, and we start to hear about how "it's Bush's fault" because of lingering anti-Americanism. At least Bush would have had the sense not to personally inject himself into this process and waste the political capital and credibility of the office of the President on such a non-critical activity.

Dana Milbank:

We have already placed the blame squarely on Burris, with a Blago assist. I suspect it also had something to do with Kevin Jennings not calling the police 21 years ago.

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Bronx, N.Y. : The House doesn't speak for the nation, but it is the most representative body we have. By far. I personally know at least thirty people who are psychological soul mates of Michelle Bachman. I work in a mental health facility.

Dana Milbank: Speaking of facilities, I just noticed from the D.C. swine flu vaccination plan that they have add "prisoners" to the list of those who should be first in line for vaccines. As best I can tell from the document, they may well get vaccinated before kids and pregnant women. So if you want to avoid swine flu in DC, steal a car and get caught.

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Wichita, Kan.: Once upon a time, Karl Rove was told that if the president would make some small changes in a position he could get wide support in Congress. Rove replied, "We are not interested in wide support." Note the contrast with the Obama administration.

I heard Thomas Frank speak recently and he noted that being anything but bipartisan does not seem to be in Obama's nature. I think he is correct. This also means that Obama will accomplish very little, if anything, with his administration.

Dana Milbank:

Cynical and Rovian, but true. In an ideal world, the opposition would negotiate in good faith and there would be "wide support" for any number of things. We are not operating in an ideal world.

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Chicago: How did Helen Thomas describe you in her book? A snarky munchkin?

Dana Milbank:

It's been a while but I believe the description was "boy toy."

(Alas, I received no mention, but she did have a kind word yesterday for the column about the Republican amendments to the health bill.)

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Political Science: Wishing for a benign monarch is like wishing for a benign tumor. Just wanted to contribute that. You can go back to your discussion now.

Dana Milbank: Right. Maybe it's more of an enlightened politburo that we need.

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Cleveland: Bernie Sanders keeps saying the blue dog Democratic Senators should oppose a filibuster and allow an up or down vote. Now that there are 60 Democratic Senators which one/ones is threatening to join the GOP in filibustering?

Dana Milbank: I heard Kent Conrad this week say that the public option would cause every major hospital in his state to go broke. So I guess he would be one. But this was puzzling because I did not realize they have hospitals in North Dakota.

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Alexandria, Va.: My thought: Obama had to go to Chicago to support his local base, but long term it's a win, since he won't be linked to contracting scandals and cost overruns and nightmare traffic.

p.s. Are the paisley smoking jackets available for Halloween rentals or did they go off to the Smithsonian?

Dana Milbank:

In the long run we will all be dead.

Because of the vagaries of E-bay, I continue to receive smoking jackets from around the world that I ordered long ago but forgot about. So possibly I can open a consignment shop.

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DC: I read the comments both Obamas made to the IOC and I think that there is a win for him in this "loss." The way they both spoke about America was like a beautiful breath of fresh air.

Dana Milbank: I have a feeling Glenn Beck won't see it that way.

I doubt it will come out as a win, but neither do I think this will be remembered as a defeat for anybody but Roland Burris.

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Who's to blame?: Along with Burris & Blago, I think there might be some secret tape of Bill Clinton undermining the President's efforts by demanding that Hillary be Master of Ceremonies. Bill, of course, was pushing for an appointment as Special Adjudicator for women's synchronized swimming.

Dana Milbank: This will all come out in the background "tick-tock" from anonymous senior administration officials later.

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Anti-Pangloss, D.C.: Are you suggesting that we are not living in the best of all possible worlds? That's unAmerican.

Dana Milbank: Only because of the D.C. swine flu vaccination plan, which requires me to go to prison to get a shot.

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Takoma Park, Md.: It's kind of a toss-up... But, IF health care reform legislation is enacted, do you think it might take the sting out of Olympics-gate?

Dana Milbank:

Depends on the public option. I hear that if the Olympics are in Rio the games will have a public option.

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Ardi's: Will the discovery of Ardi require a revision of the Homo Politicus family tree?

washingtonpost.com: Scientists: 'Ardi' Fossil Sheds Light on Origin of Human Species

Dana Milbank: No, but it may help us understand what we are seeing when Tom DeLay appears on Dancing With the Stars.

From Joel Achenbach's account:

Ardi lived 4.4 million years ago in the woodlands of East Africa. She spent most of her time in the trees. She stood about 4 feet tall, weighed 110 pounds, and had long arms, short legs, and a grasping big toe that was perfect for clambering branch to branch. She ate in the trees, raised her offspring in the trees, slept in the trees.

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Formerly MN: "A crazier line was uttered on Wednesday when Gibbs told us that the House vote on climate-change was good enough without the Senate, because the House "speaks for the United States" or some such. Think he had Joe Wilson or Alan Grayson in mind?"

Let's hope it wasn't Michelle Bachman

Dana Milbank:

She's another reason why we lost the Olympics. Minnesota is close to Chicago, and I don't think that was lost on the IOC judges.

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A State not beginning with "U": Does the elimination of Chicago from the Olympic venue competition signal the beginning of lame duck status for the president?

Dana Milbank:

No, but is a slippery slope. If we lose the World Cup soccer competition, he's a gonner.

On the other hand, winning the winter games for Salt Lake City didn't do much for Orrin Hatch's presidential bid.

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Letterman: Perhaps Senator Ensign (R-Debacle) and Senator Vitter (R-Mistress) can both go on Letterman and they can all commiserate. And make jokes and appeal to the voters. And oh how I would stay up for that! And get up early the next morning to hear Joe Scarborough rant!

Dana Milbank: Last week's chat established beyond a reasonable doubt that the proper affiliation is Sen. David Vitter (R-Madam). Ensign, however, is up in the air. (R-Hush Money)?

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Atlanta: We're not a democraccy, we're a republic. I agree with Rove re: wide support vs. doing what you think is correct.

Those people in washington should be doign what they think is RIGHT rather than what would get them re-elected. It's a crying shame - they dont' care about their country in any way.

Have any of you ever been on a "ruling" body that rules by consensus? It's an awful way to do things, and nothing gets done, and when something does get done, it's not the right thing and everyone is unhappy.

Dana Milbank: Sounds like a co-op board.

Okay, I've got to end a few minutes early. A bunch of us are having lunch with Tom Edsall, and this requires us to take a prophylactic round of antacids.

(By the way, the envelope has been opened: It's Rio.)

Thanks for chatting.

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